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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Wolfgram

Three Tips for an Aspiring DJ

When I was asked to write on how to DJ a social dance, my first reaction was excitement. Of course it was, playing music for people is fun, and getting to be the one to set the stage for dancers to create art is a really beautiful, fulfilling thing. Having a good DJ makes a world of a difference and one that most people never notice.

My second reaction had a bit of trepidation. There are countless levels of DJ’s out there, ranging everywhere from the music theory nuts like myself to the ones who put a variety playlist on shuffle and call it a day. Who should I be writing for? The veterans who’ve been at it for years and are looking for niche ways to step up their game, or the nervous new dancers who someone handed an aux cord and said “have at it”?

To remedy this, instead of publishing a comprehensive guide or set of instructions, I thought it best to introduce three concepts, each for a different level of social dance DJ. All of them are important for creating a great set, each being slightly more difficult than the last, but take what you can and implement it however serves you and your community best.

Beginner - Know Your Tempos

If you play “Open Arms” by Journey for a Waltz at the original tempo (100bpm), then you deserve nothing short of the guillotine.

I love the song. I love Journey. But how good a song sounds is an entirely different metric than how conducive it is to a good dance. It may sound cool as heck, but it is way too fast to waltz to; you’ll see dancers sweating as they rush to finish their Natural Turn before forcing another move out as quick as they can. Feeling like you’re playing catch-up with the music for an entire song not only hurts dancers’ technique but makes it impossible for them to be in the moment and enjoy the sport.

At the time of writing this article, the current WDSF tempo regulations are as follows, expressed in beats per minute:

While these are useful and you should absolutely know them, they are mere recommendations for social dances. You can break slightly outside them and nobody will be the wiser, so don’t let this stop you when playing a Quickstep at 210bpm.

Some communities will expect different tempi from this list, and you should be ready to conform to that. In my community, people are happiest when I play my Boleros and Swings slow and my Tangos fast. At the end of the day, the purpose behind tempo regulations is to only play songs that are comfortable to dance to. If one community is comfortable with fast Jives, more power to them, but don’t force a new dancer who’s just figuring out the steps to sprint through their waltz.

“But Jonathan, ‘Open Arms’ is such a good song and people want to dance to it!”

I hear you cry. If there’s a song you want to play but it’s a little too far outside the comfortable dancing range, then change the tempo! Realistically, you can get away with flexing it one way or another by around 12bpm before people notice. It’s remarkably easy to do, as you can either change the file itself with GarageBand, Audacity, or some other user-friendly sound editing software, or you can modify the song live on a DJ interface such as VirtualDJ. Do whatever suits both you and your community best.

Intermediate - Structure Your Set by Controlling the Energy

A social dance with only high-energy bops is exhausting, and one with only gentle, solemn songs will make dancers think they walked into a funeral by mistake. Remember that people will dance differently based on the energy level they hear in a song. Just think, a waltz to a melancholy piano piece will be danced very differently than one to a full orchestra backing Michael Buble.

Dancers need variety, so it’s important to strike a balance and transition smoothly from exciting, bass-heavy songs to soft, low-energy works. This can be done by steadily walking the energy level up or down in a wave-like pattern. For this, at any given moment, you need to contemplate two things:

  1. Do I want to take the energy up, down, or keep it the same?

  2. What songs have the right energy to do this?

Dropping straight from a bone-rattling Samba to an acoustic Bolero piece is a surefire way to clear the floor. Instead, allow the energy to peak before you take it back down gradually, playing a few softer but still high-energy songs before something in the middle and then lower energy songs until you opt to ramp it back up again.

Creating these waves does not require you hit a peak before changing direction. Although this is fine, it’s predictable and you’ll be much better off allowing for smaller arcs to occur, maybe walking the energy back up in the midsection instead of the bottom. Feeling out where to put these arcs and how quickly to pivot are things you learn by watching your dancers. Pay attention to the way they move and see what they want to dance to, and you’ll find a lot more people staying on the floor and enjoying their dances considerably more.

Advanced - Create Flow by Blending Harmonic Keys

Once you have all of the basics of tempo and can confidently create an energetic structure, we start to care about flow. Flow is a loaded term, but one element of it is how you transition from song to song, creating a smooth, natural-sounding anthology of music that captures the listeners’ attention.

Flow is largely intuitive, but one rational way we can create flow is by playing with the harmonic structure of the set as a whole. Every song has a key (G Maj, F#, etc) and these keys agree with other keys much like complementary colors on a color wheel. Play two songs next to each other with opposing harmonic structures and the dancers will feel jostled, but follow your song with one that naturally accompanies it and the transition will feel seamless.

If we assign each major and minor key a unique code, we can plot the relationships between them. This diagram, called the Camelot Wheel and shown here, gives a sort of guide for what key we should transition to next.

For the simplest way to find a compatible key, locate the code of your original song and move one “hour” in either direction. Alternatively, stay in the same hour but move to the inside or outside wheel, changing between major and minor. For example, B Major (1B) sounds nice when followed by E Major (12B), F-sharp Major (2B), or A-flat Minor (1A).

There are a few additional ways to move around the wheel in a fluid way:

  • Move up to two hours in either direction in the same ring (ex: 1B → 3B)

  • For adjacent keys, move up to one hour in either direction along the other ring (ex: 1B → 2A)

  • To move to a related semitone, move exactly five hours in either direction along the same ring (ex: 1B → 6B)

  • For a compatible tone, move exactly three hours counterclockwise and along the other ring (ex: 1B → 10A)

Songs can absolutely flow well together without their keys matching up, but harmonic mixing is a reliable fallback for when you need a song you know will melt together with the previous one and be pleasing to the ear. When I play a set, I gradually work my way around the wheel, changing directions and energy levels as I see fit; somewhere around 90% of my transitions operate in agreement with the Camelot system. To do this sustainably, know your music well and have a list of the keys of every song in your repertoire. Lots of software is out there to detect the key of a given song -- Mixed In Key is a program used widely in the music world, VirtualDJ has a built in detector, and TuneBat is a simple, web-based tool that will give you the key of any song you search.

The purpose of all of this is to create more enjoyable social dances that will attract more dancers. Investing in the development of a good DJ will have a significant impact on the attendance of your dances, the passion in the community, and with it, the growth of your program.

This relationship between a DJ and the dancers is very important, delicate, and undervalued. Your job as a DJ is to get people on the floor, keep them there, and help them have a good time without them even knowing it. Watch the crowd, listen to them, learn everyone’s favorite songs, and put some thought into how you can go above and beyond to make this a great night for somebody.

(Published in the program of NCDC 2020)

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